No quick fix for forest fires, researchers warn

Bogor, Indonesia, July 30, 2001—Recent reports of forest andland fires in Indonesia have raised fears of a repeat of the choking haze that blanketedmuch of southeast Asia in 1997/98. Last time this happened, the fires caused over US$9billion of damage. Dry conditions and the threat of another El Niño event could start thecycle again this year.

Preventive action is urgently needed and the Center forInternational Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the International Centre for Research inAgroforestry (ICRAF), both based in Bogor, Indonesia, are developing strategies to tacklethe fires, in discussion with the Government of Indonesia.

Most fires are started for private financial gain. “Themajority of the fires are intentional,” says ICRAF’s Suyanto, ”Burning is thecheapest method to clear land, with large-scale operations like oil palm and loggingconcerns starting about two-thirds of the fires.” Most of the other fires are set byfarmers preparing land for crops, but fire is also used as a weapon in land tenureconflicts between plantation companies and local communities.

Fire fighting does not address the core of these problems.“Fighting the fires is only a temporary solution, “ says CIFOR’s Tacconi,“In fact, some of the fires that were put out in 1997/98 were immediatelyrelit”. Such is the complexity of the fire situation that there are no easy answers.Instead, CIFOR and ICRAF have put forward a multi-stage plan that can be set in motionimmediately, backed up by medium to long term interventions.

Together with fire fighting efforts, teams of experts need to beassembled immediately to investigate the current fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Theywill need to map the fires with satellite photography and conduct field interviews toprovide information on the location, extent and type of land cover burned, as well as thepeople involved.

Researchers have learnt much from earlier fires. Almost 4 millionha of agricultural land, over 3 million ha of lowland forest and 1.5 million ha of peatand swamp forest were burnt in 1997/98. However, 60 percent of the damaging particulatematter and carbon dioxide in the haze came from peat fires. ”Controlling burning inpeat areas is the highest priority to control the haze,” says Tacconi. “80percent of the haze problem could be avoided by stricter controls, especially over thepeat land.” However, any action will have to take account of the fundamentalsocio-economic forces driving the fires and offer practical alternatives to burning.Experiences from other countries could provide useful lessons.

To complement the Government’s Integrated Action Plan for Landand Forest Fire Control, the CIFOR/ICRAF proposal sees ministries working over the nextthree years reviewing the draining of peat lands, which increases the flammability of thepeat. Alternative methods of land preparation and use that reduce both the use of fire andsmoke generated need to be developed.

The fires have destroyed enormous amounts of biodiversity,especially in lowland forests. It is imperative that these areas are better protected infuture. Ministry staff will need to work with large-scale operations to develop andimplement appropriate timber-harvesting practices, and effective forest and firemanagement. Local government will need to formulate regulations that allow some firesunder appropriate conditions, and enforce total bans in highly vulnerable areas during theworst times of the year. The authorities must also have the means to prevent and suppressaccidental or escaped fires in plantations and forests.

A review of the social and environmental costs and benefits ofalternative land use activities should look at introducing environmental taxes andremoving subsidies that increase the profitability of land clearing. At the same time, thecapacity of central and local government organizations must be strengthened to manage thefires. Above all, the Government will need to review and strengthen local capacity toenforce laws and regulations. “In this way,” says Luca Tacconi, “the localinterests will still be able to earn a fair return from their investments, the localpeople will be able to earn a living and hopefully the toxic clouds of disruptivepollution will be a thing of the past.”